Shemot: Forever Building! ~ The Wonders of the Holy Tongue

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When you will deliver the Hebrew women and see them [sitting] עַל הָאָבְנָיִם (on the birthing stool)… (Ex. 1:16).

 

In this verse, the word הָאָבְנָיִם refers to the birthing stool. Rashi ties this word to its only other occurrence of it in Scripture. Writes Rashi: על האבנים – the seat used by the woman giving birth. Another term used is מַּשְׁבֵּר.[1] Similarly, we find, עֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה עַל הָאָבְנָיִם (Jer. 18:3) Doing work while on the workbench [at the potter’s wheel].

 

Although Rashi does not delve into the root of the word, Ibn Ezra does. He is of the opinion that the root of האבנים is אבן. Writes Ibn Ezra: Ben Karish ascribes the root to the word בן\בנים, with the aleph added on, meaning birthing chair (seat). This is similar to the word מי אפסים (Ezekiel 47:3) [whose root is פס, referring to water covering the sole of the feet, with the aleph added]. But the correct explanation is that the aleph is part of the root, אבן and is referring to stone [seats].

 

Radak lists the word האבנים in entry אבן, yet understands the root to be בן/בנים, the aleph being extraneous to the root. Writes Radak: וּרְאִיתֶן עַל הָאָבְנָיִם, this is called the משבר. This word though stems from the word בן/בנים, with an added aleph. In my opinion, however, it refers to the womb, and is called אָבְנָיִם because of the בנים children [born there].

 

Along the same lines, Radak quotes his father[2] who explains that in the word אָבְנָיִם in the verse in Jeremiah (referring to work done at the potter’s wheel) – the aleph is “superfluous,” although the meaning there is not בן/בנים but בנה/בנין. Ibn Janach (entry אבן) also writes that the word אָבְנָיִם in Exodus derives from בן/בנים due to children birthed there; yet understands that the aleph in the word אָבְנָיִם in Jeremiah is part of its root and means the potter’s wheel, despite it not necessarily being made of stone. In any case, regarding the word אָבְנָיִם in Exodus, the rationale of all commentators cited up to now who explain that the aleph is extraneous is based on its purpose: birthing children – בנים.

 

In contrast to this consensus however, is the view of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Ex. 1:15-16). While RSRH concurs that the aleph of אָבְנָיִם in Exodus is extraneous, the underlying meaning is not בן/בנים (children) but בנה/בנין (construction). He writes (paraphrasing): וראיתם על האבנים, the root [seems to be] אבן conjugated from אֹּבֶן whose plural form is אָבנים. Yet we assume that at its root lies בנה (with a leading, non-root aleph, similar to the word אפן[3] whose root form is פנה – turn) – which refers to building and forming. [Rabbi S. R. Hirsch’s implicit difficulty in ascribing אבנים to בן/בנים (as did Radak and the other commentators cited) appears to be due to the identical word in Jeremiah, which obviously does not refer to בנים/children but to building/forming].

 

Nevertheless, even if we ascribe the word אָבְנָיִם in the verse in Exodus to the root בנה, as per RSRH, this does not necessarily contradict the other opinions cited. As the author of the sefer Guay Chizayon (p.131) writes: The word אבנים here refers to building, as we find in the Tractate Ta’anit (4a), homiletically explaining the verse (Deut. 9:8) “The land whose stones (אבניה) are composed of iron,” do not read it as אבניה – stones, but rather בוניה – builders. A similar connection is made between בנים (children) and בונים (builders) in the Tractate of Berachot (64a), expoundung that Talmudic scholars generate peace in the world [through their Torah learning] as it says: “All your children will be students of G-d, וְּרַב שְּלוֹּם בָנָיִךְ and your children’s peace will be abundant” (Isaiah 54:13). Do not read it בניך – your children, rather read it בוניך – your builders.

 

These interpretations illustrate the connection between various words containing the string בן, namely:  בנים – בונים – אבנים and highlight the common בניה/בנין – literal or figurative “building” that they share. In fact, this concept is quite relevant to our parashah, which describes the servitude and harsh labor forced upon our forefathers in Egypt, specifically in the arena of building, as it says וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה  (Ex. 1:11), They built up storage cities for Pharaoh.

 

It is interesting to note that there are two words found more in this parashah than in any other (each one appearing six times); both having the root of בן and related to בנין/בניה –building, namely: 1. לְבֵנִים. 2. תֶּבֶן. The Torah relates וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים  (Ex. 1:14), They embittered their lives with harsh labor, mortar and bricks; and לֹא תֹאסִפוּן לָתֵת תֶּבֶן[4] לָעָם לִלְבֹּן הַלְּבֵנִים (Ex. 5:7), Don’t give more straw to the nation, for forming bricks.

 

Based on these examples, we will examine other words which include the letters בן to determine if they too belong to the family of words connected to tangible or intangible בנין. The following is a comprehensive list:

 

1)      ‘לבֵנה’ – a building brick, as in: וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן (Ex. 11:3), they then had bricks to use as stone.

2)      אבן – a stone can be used in building, as in: וְהַבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה (I Kings 6:7), And the house, when it was being built, was built of complete [ready-made] stone.

3)      תבן – straw, a component in the formation of bricks, as in: לֹא תֹאסִפוּן לָתֵת תֶּבֶן לָעָם לִלְבֹּן הַלְּבֵנִים (Ex. 5:7), Don’t give more straw for the nation, for forming bricks.

4)      בנה – build/building, as in: הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל (Gen. 11:4), Let us build a city and tower.

5)      בנים – sons, builders of a family/nation, as in: אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה (Gen. 16:2), perhaps I will be built up [have sons] through her. Rashi explains that this teaches us that one who does not have children is not “built,” rather, “destroyed.”

6)      הבן – a dark colored wood used in building and furniture, brought by the merchants from India to Tyre (Tzur), as in: קַרְנוֹת שֵׁן וְהָבְנִים (Ez. 27:15), Ivory tusks and ebony. This follows the translation of Rabbi Yeshayahu MiTrani (Tosfos Rid) who likens it to ivory, both prized and expensive materials used to construct ornamental objects and furniture, such as a chest or trunk which kings traveled with.

7)      גבן – cheese-making, which is classified as בונה in the forbidden categories of work on the Sabbath, as it states: מגבן חייב משום בונה (Tractate Shabbat 95b) making cheese is punishable as it is included in בונה – building.

8)      בינה – understanding, a genre of wisdom, as in:  וְאִם בִּינָה שִׁמְעָה זֹּאת (Job 32:16), If you wish to understand, hear this. The sages connect this word to בנין, referring to the innate understanding women have,[5] as in: וַיִבֶן ה’ אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַצֵּלָע (Gen. 2:22), And G-d built the rib he took from man into a woman. The Talmud (Tractate Niddah 45b) expounds on the word בינה used in describing the creation of woman, saying that this teaches us that G-d gave בינה יתירה – extra insight to a woman more than a man.[6] Thus it is the woman who is extolled for building her home with insight and understanding as it says חַכְמוֹת נָשִׁים בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ (Prov. 14:1), With the wisdom of women [she] builds her home.

We should note that Radak (entry לבן) suggests the possibility that the word לבֵנה – brick, is derived from the word לבן – white, as bricks are baked to a white heat in a furnace. Regardless, we will study the word לבן itself, to examine if a possible link exists between the color white and בנין/בניה.

 

In this regard, the Talmud in fact homiletically links the color לבן with בן (children, representing the figurative building blocks of future generations, as mentioned earlier). The Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 111b), quoting the verse in Jacob’s blessing to Judah: חַכְלִילִי עֵינַיִם מִיָּיִן וּלְבֶן שִׁנַּיִם מֵחָלָב (Gen. 49:12), His eyes become red from wine, his teeth become white from milk, compares the word לבן with ל-בן. It expounds on the great abundance of grapes in the Land of Israel, the wine produced therefrom drawing enthusiastic response. Were one to suggest that only the youth will find it delightful but not the elders, the verse writes וּלְבֶן שִׁנַּיִם מֵחָלָב – do not read it as וּלְבֶן (referring to the white color), but rather לְבֶּן שָנִים  (literally: the son of [many] years) – one advanced in years will also find in it exquisite taste.

 

We continue with a description of the Manna that fell in the Wilderness. The Torah describes the Manna as וְהוּא כְּזֶרַע גַד לָבָן (Ex. 16:31), It looked like coriander seed [except that it was] white. The word לבן also may contain a reference to the word בן as we see in the following source. The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 75a) learns from this verse that the Manna had the ability to determine if a child was born after a full term pregnancy or  was two months premature. Were a woman to remarry within three months of divorce, and a child born four months later, we would be uncertain if the infant was from the first husband or the second. Thus the Manna could “tell” us, after the child was born, by an extra portion falling at the doorstop of the present or previous husband. The sefer Yismach Yehudah (p. 223) writes: We can explain the word לבן in this verse as stemming from the word [7]בן (Thus the word ל-בן would hint: this portion is “for child” X).

 

In Kabbalistic sources, we also find an association between the color לבן- white, and בנין – building. The world was founded on the attribute of kindness, as the verse states: עולם חֶסֶד יִבָנֶה (Psalms 89:3), Forever will [Your] kindness be built. Kindness is represented by the color white according to Kabbalah, and G-d’s constant daily dose of goodness He showers upon the world is embodied in this color. Following are two examples, the first relating to the “building” of the woman with the white rib; the second concerning the “building” of children through the white seed of the male:

 

1)      The first time the root בנה is used in Scripture is regarding the creation of the woman, where it states: וַיִבֶן ה’ אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַצֵּלָע (Gen. 2:22), And G-d built the rib he took from man into a woman. The Zohar (vol. 1 p. 28a) comments on this verse and explains why she was created from a rib, whose color is white[8]. The rib is derived from the attribute of kindness, which is categorized as לבן – white. For this reason, the ירח (moon) is called לבנה – white, its white light replicating the attribute of kindness shone upon it, which in turn it reflects onto the world below.

2)      The author of  Kehillat Yaakov (of Rabbi Yosef Dilemedigo of Candia, written in the year 5389/1629) under the entry of הד writes: Primeval man gave birth with a white drop, which is the foundation of kindness[9]. Man’s input (to the child) is white (semen) whereas the woman’s contribution is red[10].

Closing prayer: May the Al-mighty shine his pure חסד upon us and rebuild the Holy Temple with all its צלעות – where our sins will be whitened. May our hearts of אבן be replaced with hearts of flesh. May this come about speedily and in our days, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Birthing stone, as found in: כִּי עֵת לֹא יַעֲמֹד בְּמִשְׁבַּר בָּנִים (Hos. 13:13), for this is not the time to tarry, at the moment of childbirth.

[2]  Sefer Hagilui, entry “אבנים”.

[3] As in the verse דָּבָר דָּבֻר עַל אָפְנָיו  (Prov. 25:11), A word spoken appropriately/with relevance.

[4]  [ההבדל בין ‘תבן’ ל’קש’ הוא לכאורה שהתבן הוא קש מעובד, לפי פרש”י בתנ”ך]: ישע’ כח:כז – כִּי לֹא בֶחָרוּץ יוּדַשׁ קֶצַח; רש”י – בחרוץ – הוא עץ עשוי חריצי’ חריצים ושמו מורג ומחתך בו הקשין להיות תבן. [אולם בתלמוד, פירש”י בצורה אחרת לכאורה]: שבת לו: – כירה שהסיקוה בקש ובגבבא – נותנים עליה תבשיל; רש”י – קש – זנבות השבולין. גבבא – הנגבב מן השדה, אישטובל”א (stubble); [מסבירים התוס’ שהקש הוא החלק שנשאר בקרקע]: תוספות – כירה שהסיקוה בקש ובגבבא – נראה לר”י דקש היינו זנבות השבולים שנשאר בשדה הנקרא אשטובל”א בלעז, ותבן הוא הנקצר עם השבולת, דהכי משמע לקמן בפרק שואל (שבת קנ:) דקאמר בשלמא קש משכחת לה במחובר, אלא תבן היכי משכחת לה? ומסיק בתבנא סריא. והא דאמר בריש המקבל (ב”מ קג.) גבי מקום שנהגו לקצור אינו רשאי לעקור משום דאמר ניחא לי דתיתבן ארעאי, הוה ליה למימר דתיתקש – דהנשאר בקרקע נקרא קש כדפירש רש”י, אלא משום דתיתבן משמע טפי לשון זיבול נקט ליה; [ברם, נראה שאין סתירה, כי מסיקים התוס’ בב”מ שהמונח ‘תבן’ נופל גם על מכלול הקש הגולמי משנעבד ונתרכך]: ב”מ קג. – משנה – המקבל שדה מחבירו… חולקין בתבן ובקש; תוספות – המקבל, בתבן ובקש – אותו שנקצץ עם השבולת קרוי תבן, והנשאר בארץ קרוי קש שקורין אישטובל”א, כדכתיב: גם תבן גם מספוא רב עמנו (בר’ כד). ואותו שנשאר בקרקע אין נותנין לבהמות לאכול. וכתיב נמי: לקושש קש לתבן (שמ’ ה), שהיו מלקטים… הקש הנשאר שם תחת התבן, כי התבן כבר הוליכוהו הבעלים איש לביתו. וכן אמרינן בפרק שואל (שבת קנ:)… בעינא תיבנא, התם לפי שעוקר הכל ודש את הכל במוריגים ומתרכך נקרא הכל תבן. [בסיכום, אין סתירה בפירושי רש”י, כי שם ‘תבן’ מתאר את החלק העדין ורך יותר של הקש בטבע, וכן לחלק שמתרכך כתוצאת עיבוד ודישה].

[5] In a similar fashion, the word בן – son of,  is associated with the word הבין – understood, as we find in Sanhedrin (109b): ואון בן פלת בן ראובן (Num. 16:1), And On, the son of Peles, the son of Rueben. This is interpreted there as בן שראה והבין – the son who saw and understood.

[6] Here too, we find the Talmud (see Afikei Yam, Shabbat 104a) associating בינה – understanding with the word בין – amidst, or ביניים – intermediate (see I Samuel 17:4.) בינה is understanding and inferring one thing from another, reading between the lines and analyzing by separating into components, as well as assimilating disparate ideas into a integrated, logical “construct.” In this way, solid reasoning is an exact abstract analogue of בנין – building, forming.

[7]  [למרות שמשמע בגמרא שהדרשה בנויה על המלה “גד” הנדרשת כמו “מגיד”. שהרי המן ניבא על דברים רבים (כמצויין בגמרא שם), וענין הבנים הוא רק א’ מהם, לכן בחרה הגמרא להדגיש את דרשת “גד”/”מגיד” הכוללת את כל הנבואות השונות. אולם בוודאי שהמלה “לבן” מרמזת גם על “ל-בן מי”, וכדברי ריא”ף לעין יעקב ליומא עה.].

[8] [והשוה נדה לא.].

[9] [גם ה”מקל לבנה” באמצעותו הולידו הצאן לרוב – נראה כרמז לחסד/טיפה הלבנה ה”בונה” את הבן]: בר’ ל:לז – וַיִּקַּח לוֹ יַעֲקֹב מַקַּל לִבְנֶה לַח וְלוּז וְעַרְמוֹן. [וע’ זוהר א:קסא,ב בענין].

[10] [והשוה]: עמק המלך (ר’ נפתלי בכרך, שנת ת”ח) – שער ח, פרק יא – סוד שם הויה, הוא תולדות היסוד של אדם קדמון, מילה הנתנה בשמיני, והוליד טפת הלובן, חסד הנקרא לבן.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com.

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg